Life Cycle Assessment is a firmly established method to track environmental impacts through a product’s life cycle and can be used to understand if changes in a part of a product life cycle can lead towards greater sustainability. It is a process that evaluates the environmental burdens associated with a product system or activity by identifying and describing the energy and material uses and releases into the environment. An LCA includes the entire life cycle of the product, from raw material extraction, through materials processing, use and disposal or recycling at the end of the product's life (from "cradle to grave" or “cradle to cradle”). All transportation steps involved are also considered.
LCA can help the producer understand more about what environmental problems are associated with a product. The producer can also see where in the product life cycle the main environmental burdens arise. This is useful information when deciding where to target resources for environmental improvements, so that the resources will be used most effectively. There are many more uses for LCA, including analysing the results of future changes in production, or by changing a raw material supplier etc. A short summary of the main applications for producers is given below:
• What are the most important environmental problems and where in the life cycle do these arise?
• What happens to our environmental profile if we make changes in our production process?
Decision support: • Where are the most effective areas for us to target resources (personnel, technology, education) to improve our performance? • What sort of product/marketing profile do we want? • Which materials and suppliers should we use?
Information exchange/ communication: Information for employees (internal stakeholders), education as well as key environmental data (EPIs) and environmental product information (EPDs). • Communication of the effects of a company's environmental improvement efforts to authorities, neighbours, financial institutions and external stakeholders (EPIs). In addition to producers’ use of LCA, the method and its results are also useful for companies or individuals who want to purchase more environmentally sustainable products or for policy makers creating frameworks for LCA assesses the environmental impacts of the system in the areas of ecological systems, human health and resource depletion. Social LCA (S-LCA) and Life Cycle Costing (LCC) are the social and economic counterparts to an LCA. A comprehensive methodology has recently developed, the so-called Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA), where LCA, S-LCA and LCC are included, and thus more aspects of sustainability.